Report. Anyone who reports on the maras risks up to 15 years. El Faro has long been the object of intimidation by the current government, with public attacks, wiretaps, raids on its online presence and the removal from the country of its Mexican editor.

Journalists protest after Bukele tightens grip on Salvadoran press

After declaring a state of exception (with the suspension of constitutional guarantees and the arrest of 3,000 people), approving sentences of up to 10 years for 12-year-old minors and the hardening of prison conditions, the millennial autocrat president of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, has requested sentences of up to 15 years for those in the media who in any way spread information about the activities of the pandillas (youth gangs) that are operating in the country. On Saturday, March 26, alone, these were responsible for 62 murders, more than at any time since the civil war.

For some time now, Bukele, who enjoys an absolute majority in Parliament for his Nuevas Ideas party and has de facto taken over the management of the judiciary, has been attacking the freedom of the press relentlessly with his tweets. In particular, he has been targeting El Faro, the first exclusively digital daily newspaper in Latin America, founded in 1998 by a group of young, independent journalists and structured essentially as an NGO, and which continues to survive (with difficulty) thanks to subscriptions and international donations from organizations that defend the autonomy of small media.

El Faro had reported on how the previous governments, both right-wing and with ties to the former guerrillas, had attempted negotiations and ceasefires with the leaders of the two main gangs: the Mara Salvatrucha 13 and the Barrios 18.

With the advent of Bukele’s presidency in 2019, there was a gradual but significant decline in murders, from a record high of 103 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants recorded in 2015 (among the highest in the world).

However, what El Faro uncovered, based on a wealth of detailed official documentation, was that this result was not the outcome of a (highly unlikely) sudden improvement in the living conditions of the desperate young Salvadorans. Instead, it was the result of a complex web of quid-pro-quos between the regions under the control of the maras and the prisons where their top leaders were being held. As one would imagine, the government authorities have been negotiating with them, offering to mitigate the repressive actions they were taking against the gangs as well as improve the leaders’ conditions in prison, including reduced sentences and non-extradition in case of requests from the U.S. This went as far as to involve buying votes in the parliamentary and municipal elections of February 2021.

The analysis of El Faro argues that in recent weeks, something has gone wrong in the balance of these “conversations,” and that the pandillas have reacted with a surge in murders, including of people chosen at random in the territories they control. El Faro has long been the object of intimidation by the current government, with public attacks, wiretaps, raids on its online presence and the removal from the country of its Mexican editor Daniel Lizarraga, who was expelled from El Salvador last year.

For this reason, on Thursday El Faro decided to no longer post news on its site for a day, with its page displaying only the parliamentary decree to amend the penal code that sets out prison terms for those who “inform” about the maras. “Democratic life has already been dismantled, and now, with this gag law, the regime wants to hide the truth about its relationships with criminal groups, as well as its corruption,” reads the protest statement by the newspaper. It adds: “All of us Salvadorans are paying for the consequences of the negligence, recklessness and lies of this government, as well as its obsession with media shows.”

As for Bukele, paradoxically, he seems to be maintaining his level of popular support, while trying to expunge the poor image of a violent country that would scare away Bitcoin investors – an ill-thought-out expedient that risks driving El Salvador into bankruptcy. This is the avenue he is pursuing instead of finally embarking on the path of a tax reform that would get the starkest oligarchy in the subcontinent to finally pay some taxes for the first time, a path towards reducing the abysmal inequalities in the country. But what else could one expect from such a true-to-type entrepreneur and showman as Bukele?

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